Saturday, July 10, 2010

Confessions of a Dirty Grammar Cop

By Michael

Confession time. I came to love crime writing – through which I release aggressive impulses in fictional characters who do the things that civilized people never should do – as a reaction to strangers who have tried to joke with me about grammar. (Okay, this is a false confession, but I don’t care: I’m going with it.)

You see, in my day job, I teach British Romantic literature, focusing on poetry by guys like William Wordsworth, and often when I explain this to people I meet at parties or in the neighborhood or on the beach, they step back, laugh nervously, and say, “You’re an English teacher? Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!”

I’ve long thought that the right response would be to punch these people in the jugular and then calmly recite Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” while waiting for the police to arrive. Or to mimic and mock them: “Uh- oh, I’d better watch my grammar? I’d hate to diagram that fucking sentence!” Or to play silent and hard and disappear into a bottle of whiskey.

Fortunately, though, I’ve released my negative energies into fictional characters. So, instead, I respond calmly and politely. I tell them, “I’m more interested in how people talk than how they should talk. People at the university where I work say ‘whom’ a lot and they know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’, so if you’re talking to them you probably should say ‘whom’ and know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ But if you join some of my other friends and me for a beer and start saying ‘whom’ and correcting them when they confuse ‘lie’ and ‘lay,’ you’ll probably get punched in the jugular. That’s because we’re talking with another grammar. Two groups. Two grammars. Both grammars have rules and conventions. The only difference is that if you break the rules of the academic grammar someone will put a C- at the top of your essay, and if you break the rules of the nonacademic grammar you’ll get punched in the throat.

“So, no,” I say to my new acquaintances, “I won’t correct your grammar. In fact, I celebrate your grammar, whatever it is.”

If I’ve convinced my new acquaintances, they smile and say, “Cool! Let’s you and me go get a beer and talk some more,” and then I get to make soft clicking noises and say, “That’s ‘you and I.’”


Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Grammar Speak and Grammar Write.
If you correct this I promise I will have a hard reading what you Grammar Write.
Now about that beer.

Giggles and Guns

Meredith Cole said...

One of the things I love about the English language is that it is constantly changing. And although we must all grit our teeth at some of the more obnoxious changes (nouns becoming verbs) and not hit anyone in the jugular, it's very cool to see our language evolve. Glad you get your aggressions out on the page (where the rest of us can read 'em), Michael!

Michael Wiley said...

I like it, Mary.

I'm with you, Meredith. I love that English is constantly changing: that change is its strength, not a weakness, I think. That's not to say that we should stop paying attention to grammar rules and conventions, just that we should recognize that the rules always have been broken and that they will be broken again . . . and that everything will be okay in spite of the breaking.

I'm also with you on nouns becoming verbs, not because nounverbs are ungrammatical but because they hurt my ears. In academic writing, though, the more frequent problem is nominalization, turning verbs into nouns.

Jen Forbus said...

I love it. I got a lot of the same thing teaching high school English. But I taught in an urban school district and I LOVED to listen to my students speak. They didn't necessarily speak according to the rules, but even in their own groups, their language had meaning and sense. It's amazing. A lot of it will ultimately die and fall by the wayside, but some of it may merge into the language. I think that's one of the most amazing things about American English, too.

All in all, it's just an astounding organism.